Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (BBC-TV, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an episode of Shakespeare Uncovered, a quite interesting British TV series for which so far lists only one season (and the PBS Web site is even less helpful; instead of offering printed transcripts, cast and crew lists, all they seem to have for their shows these days is video links so you can stream the program itself — hey, guys, I’ve already seen it; now, how about some of the honest-to-goodness information your site used to provide in the days before social media?) but there is a second one, and this episode featured British actor Hugh Bonneville (who, blessedly, pronounced the “t” in “often”!) expounding on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and talking about three recent productions of it as well as reminiscing about his professional acting debut in a 1968 production at an open-air theatre in London (called, simply and directly, “Open-Air Theatre”) understudying the role of Lysander, the principal romantic lead, for another actor who went on to an even more illustrious career than his: Ralph Fiennes. There were brief clips from the first film ever made of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a one-reel American silent from 1909 — as well as the first talking version, produced by Warner Bros. in 1935 and directed by Max Reinhardt (based on his famous stage production of the play) with the incidental music composed by Felix Mendelssohn in the 19th century and adapted here by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for his first job in films. Ironically, Bonneville’s narration argued that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best-constructed plays while I, in my blog post on the Reinhardt film, felt the other way about it: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most charming plays but also one of his least well structured; the three interlocking plots — the battle of Athenian prince Theseus (Ian Hunter, a British actor who delivers the Shakespearean dialogue idiomatically enough but seems so hammy he practically glues himself to the lens) to get the bride he’s forced to marry him, Amazonian queen Hippolyta (the Athenians have just defeated the Amazons in battle and she’s his prize for the victory), to love him; the interlocking romantic intrigues of Lysander (Dick Powell, pushing his naturally high voice even higher than usual and responding to the challenge of acting Shakespeare by speaking as if he sucked on helium before each take), Hermia (Olivia de Havilland), Demetrius (real-life Bisexual Ross Alexander, who looks so queeny in this one you wonder why he and Powell don’t pair up and leave the women alone) and Helena (Jean Muir); and the intrigue among the fairies and also the proletarian players who are anxious to win the lifetime pension offered to anyone who performs a show at Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding — don’t really reflect each other that well and often get in each other’s way.”

Where the show was strongest was in exploring the performance tradition of the play, including its virtual disappearance from the British stage for 200 years (all theatre was banned in Britain under the Taliban-like rule of “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell in the 1650’s but most of Shakespeare’s plays returned to British stages after the Restoration), explained mainly due to producers’ and audiences’ discomfort about the supernatural elements: fairies, love potions, a human turned into a donkey, and the like. Even when it was performed it was frequently done in mutilated versions in which at least one of the three separate levels of characters — the ordinary people in and around the Athenian court, the fairies and the so-called “Mechanicals,” the proletarians putting on a play about star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe (quite obviously a Shakespearean self-parody of Romeo and Juliet!) — were removed. I remembered the Reinhardt film as sometimes magnificent and sometimes maddening, but the clips from it shown in the Shakespeare Uncovered episode — particularly of James Cagney’s great performance as Bottom (his edgy combination of masculine toughness and quirky vulnerability absolutely blew away all the prissily “correct” British actors we saw clips of from later productions!) — were welcome. A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be considered the first (or one of the first; Christopher Marlowe’s and Samuel Rowley’s Doctor Faustus also might be counted if it weren’t so obviously the work of two separate people, with Marlowe’s magisterial language in the first and last acts and mostly Rowley’s comic-relief prose in between) examples of a post-modern play (well, Shakespeare invented so many of the conventions of the modern theatre, why shouldn’t he be credited with inventing post-modernism as well?), with its wrenching gear shifts in tone and genre and its overall impression of a work almost terminally at war with itself. Shakespeare is believed to have written it not for a production at the Globe Theatre, his usual stamping ground, but for a private performance at the second wedding of the Earl of Oxford’s mother (you know, Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, who some contentious goons regard as the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays with the Man from Stratford serving merely as “front” — as opposed to the people who think Christopher Marlowe was the “real” Shakespeare, both theories that have a lot of ’splainin’ to do about how new Shakespeare plays continued to appear after both DeVere and Marlowe were dead), which makes it odd that he should have written a script that was so cynical about love (it’s the source of the famous cliché about how “the course of true love never did run smooth”) and in which the long-term married couple, fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania, are the biggest butts of the jokes.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is greater than any one production of it — it’s been chopped, channeled and run through the modern meatgrinder of Regietheater, including one abominable-looking production we get clips of by Peter Brook in 1970 which dispensed with real forests (or the usual stage simulacra thereof) and had the action staged in front of a backdrop of geometric lines with the actors suspended above the stage like performers in Cirque du Soleil (which, to Brook’s credit, didn’t yet exist when he did this production). What comes through most from this show is how sophisticated a writer Shakespeare really was — when the four fairy-crossed lovers meet in the woods after the love potion has scrambled their affections, Shakespeare writes first in rhyming couplets and then switches to blank verse as the emotional mood grows darker and more “serious” — and this play just adds to the Shakespeare enigma, that an author from a relatively humble background who may not even have been able to read or write (I’ve long suspected that one reason we have no original manuscript pages from Shakespeare’s plays and few documents bearing his signature is he may never have learned to read or write and may have written the plays by dictation) could create such works not only of everlasting linguistic beauty but structural literary complexity as well. What, one wonders, did the groundlings at the Globe make of these plays when they were new? Did they realize they were watching something special, or did they just sit through them the way modern moviegoers sit through an action film, waiting through the exposition for the big effects scenes to happen?